Memories of a Jazz Child
By Paul Combs
Jazz Improv, vol. 2, no. 4.
While chatting with Jen Karpen-Neimeyer, the editor of this fine publication, I noted that my aunt used to live not far from Jazz Improv's offices. I then proceeded, as I am known to do, to start telling her a bunch of my Philly stories. Since these stories all had to do with Jazz, Jen thought you might enjoy them as well and graciously invited me to share them with you. For those of you fifty or older, I hope this will activate some fond memories of your own. For those younger, I will try to paint a picture of a very different time, although it does not seem that long ago to me.
When I was born in 1946, the same year as Dizzy's first big band, Jazz, although not necessarily Be Bop, was the popular music of the day. Like many of us born around that time I heard it on the radio from infancy. At times during my years as a professional musician some one has called a tune that I have never played before, but I still know well enough to fake because of all that early listening. Nat Cole made a strong impression in me early on, and when he had his TV show I watched with the feeling that he was an old and trusted friend.
I can still remember the day I found out that Bird died. It was a sunny day and there was, as I recall, a headline on the newspaper; I think it was the Philadelphia Daily News. As a third grader I did not yet have a strong impression of the sound of his music, but I was quite aware that we had lost someone very important. I think this was all attributable to the presence of Jazz on television as well as the radio, since my family were not big Jazz fans. The news also left an impression of real mourning for this man which runs contrary to the impressions of some others that Bird died forgotten and unappreciated.
Things really got interesting for me around 1958, when we moved from the suburbs to "Center City." We lived right in the middle of all the music and art action in Philadelphia, at 15th and Pine. Right around the corner, on Lombard Street, was the Showboat. Once, when I had apparently deserved a treat, I got to hear Miles with Trane, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, at the Showboat. This would have been in 1960, just before Trane went out on his own. Miles had his son with him and was warm and gracious towards me when I asked for his autograph. I got all five of their autographs, including Trane's wishes for "best of luck always" and an extra warm and encouraging smile from Jimmy Cobb that shines in my memory to this day. The power of a smile and an encouraging word to inspire a youngster must never be underestimated.
Around the next corner, at Broad and South, was Pep's Show Bar. Pep's, unlike the subterranean Showboat, was right on street level and had plate glass windows, a left-over from the location's former incarnation as a beauty parlor, I was told. This would come in handy later in my teens when I would be returning from the Settlement Music School in the evening and could stop and press my ear against the window to take in a few tunes before going home. I have two special memories of Pep's. The first was when my mother took me, about 13 years old, to hear the Jazztet with Benny Golson, Art Farmer, Tom MacIntosh, McCoy Tyner, Addison Farmer and, I believe, Lex Humphries. They were getting a lot of air play on WHAT-FM, the local 24-hour Jazz station (yes, we had a 24-hour, commercial Jazz station) and I was thrilled to hear the band in person. A year or two later, and now a seasoned city kid, I had worked out an arrangement with the Saturday matinee bartender. Pep's had a large lower level bar and a smaller upper level one by the band stand. The upper bar would be closed during the matinees and I could sit there with a soda, provided I sat so that I could keep my eye on the door and the bartender. If I saw a policeman come in or if the bartender gave me a signal, I would head for the men's room and go out the exit that was next to it. Fortunately, this was never necessary.
One afternoon I remember the best featured Charles Mingus, one of my biggest heroes at the time, and a fantastic band that, as far as I know, he never recorded. Yusef Lateef and Jimmy Knepper were the horn players, and along with his trusted companion, drummer Danny Richmond, was bassist Doug Watkins. Mingus was playing piano a lot in those days and this line-up gave him an incredible orchestrational range. He could have Knepper's trombone and any of the woodwinds that Yusef brought with him, Watkins on bass and himself on piano. Doug Watkins also was a superb cellist, so he could have three voices on the front line and play bass. The most memorable to me, however, was the configuration with both Mingus and Watkins on bass. As magnificent as the other two combinations were, the power generated by these two mighty bassists playing together made the deepest impression on me. On the brake, I had a reasonably long conversation with Mingus. At first he tried to discourage me, in his sternest manner, from considering a life as a player. "Go into management," he said "that's where the money is." Still I persisted, telling him that the money was not what mattered to me. For better or worse, it still isn't, although I would like for all of us musicians to be better paid. When I finally made it clear to him that I heard all this music in me and felt I had to get it out, a smile came over his face and he softened and offered his encouragement.
Thinking of Mingus reminds me of the times I heard Eric Dolphy. The first time I heard him was with Chico Hamilton at a big Jazz concert at the Academy of Music, Philadelphia's large and wonderful classical music hall and home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, conveniently located about three blocks from our apartment. Dolphy was just beginning to get the attention of a few critics, but he was still not well known. This was my first introduction to him and he absolute knocked me out. I had never heard anyone play like that before, he was, as I think all would agree, a true original.
The whole concert is worth talking about, since this, too, is something that one does not often find anymore. From time to time there would be these big concerts, sort of like mini-festivals. If I remember correctly, they would be sponsored or organized by the Jazz radio station, the record companies and the major venues. They would take place on Sunday afternoon and go well into the evening. At this particular concert there were the Dave Brubeck Quartet, with Paul Desmond; Lambert, Hendricks and Ross; Maynard Ferguson's Big Band, the one with Willie Maden; the Chico Hamilton Quintet and, for comic relief, Redd Foxx. What a show! Everyone was at the top of their game including Foxx who's spell was so powerful that, by the end of his set, he could make us laugh with just a side-long glance.
Some time the next year, I went to New York City for a few days with my parents. My step-father was in the book trade and there was a big trade show for him to attend. As a treat, he brought my mother and me along. Mom and I would go sight-seeing during the day, and the two of then would go to the theater, which was my step-father's passion, in the evening. I would stay at the hotel and watch the WOR Movie Of The Week. WOR-TV would show the same film all week long, like a movie theater, and for some reason I found this fascinating. On the last night of our stay I got to pick the evening's entertainment. Mingus was at the Café Bohemia, if I remember correctly, and the Candid release Mingus Presents Mingus, had just come out. We got there before the first set and I got to sit at a table right in front of the band stand. Mingus, Danny Richmond, Ted Curson and Eric Dolphy were all within ten feet of me. Actually, I could have reached out and touched the bell of Dolphy's horn. What can I say! If you do not know that album, I believe it has been re-released, go get it; and then imagine that these guys are right in front of you. In the second set the band was joined by the great tap-dancer "Baby" Lawrence. Lawrence did a couple of feature numbers including one that involved an extended exchange with Danny Richmond. He also accompanied the band as a percussionist, with his taps.
Philadelphia in the late fifties and early sixties also had a healthy coffee-house scene. This was absolutely terrific for a music and art loving teenager like me, since I could go to these places unaccompanied. One of my favorites was a little place on Walnut street, just west of Rittenhouse Square that had a juke box full of Jazz 45s. They also had a teeny-tiny stage on which they presented poetry readings, folk-singers and small jazz combos. Another, one block over on Sansom Street, was set up as a small theater and presented adventurous plays and films. Yet another was up on Market Street around 21st or 22nd, and it was here that I got to hear Cecil Taylor for the first time. This, I believe, would have been in 1961 or 1962, and even though Taylor had a few records, it was very hard for him to get gigs, especially in the clubs. On this evening he had Dennis Charles on drums, but I am afraid I do not remember who the bass player was. Just a piano trio, but what a piano trio. I remember sitting there listening to them take apart Cole Porter's What Is This Thing Called Love and put it back together again. The music was so powerful that it made me feel like I was fifteen feet tall and the whole room and every one and every thing in it correspondingly bigger. I have never experienced such a sensation again.
Still another coffee-house was the scene of my first jam-session. There was a regular jam evening and I would go there with my friend Steve, whom we called Thad. I could probably write a whole book about the adventures Steve, who wrote poetry under the nom de plume of Thaddius, and myself. The two of us would do a lot of listening together, and had taken up saxophone at about the same time. On the evening in question, we gathered our courage and our horns and took to the stage for the first time as improvising musicians. We played Tadd Dameron's Good Bait and although we had the tune down, we got terribly lost in our solos, but the guys in the band were forgiving and encouraged us to stay at it. I wish I could remember the name of this place. It was here that I met two gentlemen who were very encouraging to many of us youngsters. One was the legendary Clarence "C" Sharpe. "C" had recorded with Lee Morgan but chose to go into education, I believe. He and his beatific wife would make the rounds of the local venues and listen and smile and give words of encouragement like a pair of Be Bop angels. Many Philly musicians have fond memories of the Sharpes.
The other man was Don Holiday. Don was a Jazz fan who had just gotten out of the army. He used to hang out where the music was and we got to be friends. He was a bit older than me and my friends, but he had a strong interest in youngsters who were trying to take a positive direction, and later joined the Police to work in juvenile crime prevention. I have a lot of negative memories of the Philadelphia police from those days, but it gave me some comfort to know that Don was on the force. A whole bunch of us teenagers used to gather at his house to listen to records and one time he took a few of us to the Uptown Theater, in North Philadelphia. The Uptown was in many ways to North Philly what the Apollo is to Harlem. The show was a two set concert by Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. This edition was the classic sextet with Freddy Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton and Jymie Merritt. Don, who had been stationed in England, also turned me on to the Jazz Couriers, with Ronnie Scott and Tuby Hayes, two of Europe's finest tenor players of the time. Ronnie was also owner of the famous London club that bears his name. Tuby Hayes was also an excellent vibes player. These albums were not available in the U.S. and woke me up to just how hip some of the Europeans were.
In my senior year of high school I was elected president of the Jazz Club. We had a pretty serious Jazz Club which had brought Babatunde Olatungi to school for an afternoon concert when I was in my junior year. Under my administration we first presented a young Philly alto player I had gotten to know named Jay Hardeman. I do not know what ever became him, but the buzz on the street at the time was that Mingus had his eye on him. My real coup, however, was when I managed to get Sonny Rollins to come speak to us. I will never for get walking up to the subway station to meet him and accompany him to the school. He was so tall, soft spoken and dignified. At that time his album Live At The Village Vanguard had been my bible for some time, beyond that I do not have words to describe my feelings on that afternoon.
The later sixties brought a change in the cultural climate, and the scene of my adolescence changed accordingly. I drifted away from such a close involvement with Jazz for awhile, first to conservatory to study composition in a Classical setting, and then into rock and folk. In 1969-70, however, I had a couple of encounters with Sun Ra, who was a neighbor of mine, that I would like to share with you before finishing this memoir. I first met Sun Ra during an interview at WHUY-FM, where I was the music producer/announcer. A colleague of mine, Tom Lopez, was conducting the interview, but I got to sit in on it. Now it is well documented that Herman Blount was born in Chicago, but when he, as Sun Ra, looked me in the eye and told me he was from Saturn, I could not question it. The man had such a presence; I knew that he knew that I knew it was a fantasy, and yet in his company there was also an undeniable truth to the fantasy. A couple of years later I had the honor to precede him and the Arkestra in a concert. This was part of a series of concerts that a group of us musicians and artists used to organize on Sundays, in a big park in the middle of the Germantown district, where we all lived. On this particular Sunday the sky was full of menacing clouds. Just as we finished performing, a fine mist began and threatened to become rain. We all worried that Ra and company would have to cancel their performance. The sound crew covered all the equipment and disconnected the power. This was discussed with the Arkestra members who were beginning to assemble at the stage, but they said it would be OK, and proceeded to get ready for their set. Just as their preparations were almost complete a car drove up and Sun Ra stepped out. The rain and mist stopped. They played, sang and danced for the next two hours without interruption from the weather, and it was magnificent. When they finished Ra got back in the car and the mist and light rain resumed. Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe it wasn't.
One thing about having Sun Ra as a neighbor was the possibility of running into him in everyday situations, like shopping at the super market. One day a friend of mine and I did just this. Sun Ra and John Gilmore, the great tenor saxophonist and Ra's right-hand man, were taking care of the shopping for their household (many of the Arkestra members lived in a big house together with their leader). I have always had the impression that life was one big cosmic game for these folks, one that involved serious dedication and a deep sense of humor. Both musicians were wearing robes, although less elaborate ones than they would wear on stage. Gilmore had a small, brimless North African cap on, and Ra a small turban. Gilmore pushed the cart, and Ra followed behind directing him to the various things they needed. My friend and I followed them at a respectful distance. Finally they got to the meat counter. This was a small neighborhood super market and it was customary to have a butcher on duty behind the counter in those days. As they parked themselves in front of the counter Sun Ra said, "John, tell the butcher that Sun Ra would like five pounds of hamburger," and, although the butcher could hear Ra at least as well as we could, Gilmore relayed the request. The butcher served up the meat with a straight face, as if he were either in on the play or it was a normal scene to him. I may be wrong, but I have always had the feeling that once the two of them got home they sat down and had a good laugh. My friend and I sure did, and we wished we had thought of this little piece of theater ourselves.
My own life and career has taken many twists and turns since those days. Mingus was right, although, in truth, I think many of my difficulties have been of my own making. In any event, all those inspiring encounters with live Jazz and the warm encouragement of so many have carried me through. More than thirty five years later I am still performing regularly and endeavoring to pay all those generous people back by passing on what I can to another generation.
© Paul Combs, 2001, 2012